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July 2014
Issue: December 1, 2010

Director's Chair: Gareth Edwards - 'Monsters'

By: Randi Altman

NEW YORK — I first met Gareth Edwards, director/writer of the new Magnolia Films offering Monsters, two years ago in Amsterdam during the IBC show. We were sitting next to each other at an Adobe dinner. He, primarily an After Effects artist, had just completed directing and creating all the visual effects for the BBC’s Attila the Hun.

Recently, over veggie burgers in New York City, the UK-based Edwards walked me through his journey as writer, director, cinematographer and visual effects artist on the sci-fi horror film Monsters, about alien life forms and an American journalist and tourist making their way through an infected zone (Mexico) on their way to the US border. 

Edwards, two actors and a very small crew traveled through Central America shooting in locations that appealed to them and often using real people as actors in the film. 

POST: You manned the camera?

EDWARDS: “Yes. The idea was always to do it as guerrilla as possible. I didn’t want anyone to know we were making a film. We wanted to come and go unnoticed because the whole premise was to make the world’s most realistic monster movie — I am not sure we did that, but it was our goal. We wanted to use real people and real environments and stick all that fantasy bit in later in the computer.”

POST: How did you decide which camera to shoot with?

EDWARDS: “Initially, it was about the smallest possible camera we could have, but I also wanted beautiful depth of field. The idea of using Red would have been great, but the amount gear you need to lug around and the monitors and drives — it’s like going back to 35mm in terms of how many people you need to support the camera side of things, and I just wanted to shoot it myself. So the next thing down was to use these adapters that stick on the front of the camera, like the Letus Ultimate, which has really good optics. 

“We tested it with the Sony EX-3 and the Panasonic P2. I had them next to each other and shot the same shots in the same places. We scanned it, blew it up to 35mm and screened it in London. The Sony was a dream to work with. There is a high def monitor in the viewfinder. You knew exactly when it was in focus, and it was in color. 

“Ultimately, the Sony was problematic with this adapter because it was so front heavy. I think, ergonomically, it’s supposed to rest on your shoulder, but it doesn’t really work out that way. You are pretty much supporting it with your front arm. Then add to that your regular Nikon 35mm SLR lenses and it gets even heavier.”

POST: Can you describe the guerrilla-style shoot?

EDWARDS: “We had a soundman and a line producer, and a Spanish-speaking equivalent, and I was shooting. We would go in a van with the two actors and drive to a place we thought would look good for a location. We’d ask permission when we turned up and rope in people to be in it. Everyone in the film, apart from the main two actors, are people we met along the way. 

“One of the main roles of the line producer, apart from organizing everything, was running around after everyone with a waiver. If I was filming I would gesture with my foot or something, ‘That guy is in shot.’ He’d then run after him with a form. The weird thing about the depth of field is often in the background it suggests people but they are unrecognizable. That’s how great these lenses are. If I had a video lens that got everything in focus I think we’d still be trying to get release forms now.”

POST: Were you editing as you were shooting?

EDWARDS: “That was the plan. We had a laptop and some external drives, and we were going to edit on Adobe Premiere as we went. The fantastic thing about these cameras is they don’t shoot with tapes; it’s all memory cards. You initially think, ‘Wow, that’s great,’ but it’s probably more work than if we had tapes.

“You have an amazing day where you get this great footage, but you have to go home and delete the footage off that card so you can shoot the next day with it. It’s so scary — you don’t want to do it until you’ve checked the footage properly, making sure there are no corrupt files. Then you have to clone it because if a drive then failed we would lose that footage forever. 

“The editor (Colin Goudie) was trying to edit and the assistant (Justin Hall) was cloning everything. The poor guy… we went on the most amazing trip through Central America, but all he saw was the walls of each motel. He had to sit there all the time cloning everything, and he had to do it three times. So we didn’t get as much editing done  as we hoped because of this cloning thing.”

POST: Is all of the footage the blessing and the curse of digital cameras?

EDWARDS: “There is no way on earth we could have gotten the performances we got out of the non-actors without shooting the hell out of it. It was sort of ‘spray and pray’ kind of coverage. If you shoot for an hour to get a minute, then you’ve got all these mannerisms, all these little moments and nuances of people reacting. We are using it all out of context, so sometimes we are watching reaction shots of them watching somebody’s radio mic being fitted — because all you are looking for is a realistic reaction. It doesn’t really matter what they are reacting to, I just wanted it to feel real. 

“My editor got really frustrated with me because I wouldn’t stop the camera. So we would record and we’d have 45-minute takes. I had a headphone in my ear and I’d get lost in the conversation. The viewfinder on the camera is such that you can convince yourself you are in a little theater. Then all the decisions you make are based on how you feel sitting in the cinema. ‘I am bored of him now, what’s over there?’ Or, ‘That’s an interesting sound. Who’s making that?’ It was very much like a documentary in terms of the way it was shot, but when you watch it, it feels like more of a drama. It’s all hand-held, but I am trying my hardest to keep it still.”

POST: Did you do any image stabilization on it in post?

EDWARDS: “No, and they [the producers] were nervous about it. 

“I was adding a lot of CGI to scenes. So if the actors are doing something brilliant, I’d pan off them to the sky to nothing and the producers would get really confused watching the rushes — ‘This is brilliant and your are panning away to nothing?!’ I’d say, ‘I am going to add a helicopter. I have to do it when it’s brilliant or it won’t be in the film.’ This happened a lot because I was often resting the camera on my shoulder, because it was so damn heavy, and that looks very similar visually to me panning up to a helicopter. 

“It was very confusing watching the rushes because I wouldn’t stop recording during those times. So they would see all this wobbly stuff and get worried. It really was sitting down with the editor when we got home and explaining, ‘This is me resting. That is an effects shot.’ In Premiere we would type in text, like Tank, Helicopter, Ruins…”

POST: How many VFX shots are there?

EDWARDS: “About 250. It took so long to get a design and figure out how I was going to do it because I hadn’t really done creature animation before. When you see the creature, it’s made up of tentacles and I wanted it to be beautiful as well as scary. I couldn’t figure out how to do it, then I remembered there was a plug-in within 3DS Max where you can make ropes. So you tell the computer where this end of the rope is and where that end of the rope is, and it automatically releases physics to calculate how the rope swings and moves based on these points. I turned gravity to zero and re-simulated it, and this amazing animation happened where it was undulating like a tentacle in water. 

“My strength isn’t 3D, it’s visual effects — After Effects — so I basically did it all in layers. The creatures are bioluminescent. I made a checkerboard pattern and shrunk the creature and used the checkerboard and animated it over the creature, so you get these random black-and-white shapes over the same shape as the creature. I used that as a basis to how all the bioluminescence was done. You can colorize it, glow it, flash it, you get these undulating little pieces under the main texture that look really complicated, but really it’s just really randomly flashing blobs using lots of masks.  Everything was composited in After Effects — I leaned so much more on compositing.”

POST: You are a big Adobe user. Would you have been able to do as much yourself with another set of tools?

EDWARDS: “When I try to learn other software I get frustrated that it doesn’t work the way the software I use does, so I abandon it and go back to what I know. Software is written by engineers, and it seems like sometimes they do things because it’s easy instead of listening to artists. To be honest, all 3D software is like that; it works more like a mathematician created it, not an artist. I find that with After Effects, it’s like an artist has had a lot of input on how to use it. Fundamentally, it works the way my brain works.”

POST: What did you use for modeling?

EDWARDS: “The creatures were designed in [Pixologic] Z-Brush; that tool is amazing. It’s a piece of software where someone said, ‘Screw what is out there. How do we make the greatest modeling tool.’ I could never hope to model a creature in 3D; it’s so complicated, but I could pick up Z-Brush and do something in half an hour. It’s like using clay, not pushing polygons.”

POST: What was your VFX workflow like?

EDWARDS: “I’d wake up in the morning, open up Premiere. I’d right click on a shot, which sends it to After Effects, I’d start tracking it in Mocha, start painting it in Photoshop and watch it back in Premiere. I’d make notes, change it again, make notes, change it again... always looking at my watch for what the cut off time is for that shot. My guide is a spreadsheet; it’s like a pace setter. Then I ask myself what approach can achieve it in that time? And it’s usually not the approach I’d default to. It’s usually the crazier, quicker, dirtier approach. It’s amazing because about 70 percent of those quick fixes actually end up working completely in the final film. It’s the only way you can make a film like this.

“To get it right for the majority of the audience might take a day. To get it right for the one percent who work in the industry might take a month. I had the right balance. The whole process wasn’t, ‘Can I make a film full of amazing special effects.’ My goal was to make a good film, and part of how we achieved that was with visual effects.”